Prompted by several friends and finally by some excellent posts from Marc Babej, I’ve read Douglas Rushkoff’s latest, Get Back in the Box. This is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time. It’s one of the few business books that I’ve read to the end.
If you don’t have time to read the book, Marc’s three posts above give some of the highlights of Rushkoff’s thinking.
The idea that resonates most for me is Rushkoff’s attack on the “business of business”. This is the popular idea that what matters is not expertise in, or passion for, a particular product or service; instead what gets popularised is the notion of genius business leaders who can flit from one industry to another, without much real interest in what industry does. The result: organisations that get distracted with gimmicks instead of putting their energies into creating good products. (This ties in to Jim Collins‘ observation, in Good to Great, that truly great companies did not have superstar leaders imported from afar; they usually had humbler leaders steeped in the business.)
This particular malady is very prevalent in branding and marketing, where gimmicks so often triumph over substance. Ruskoff puts this rather eloquently talking to Marc here:
Most executives today are career managers. Managing is a specialization that is, almost by definition, divorced from the product, and branding is the only thing these folks come in contact with. If you lack the knowledge to measure your success in terms of the quality of your products, then the replication of your image in the media space becomes your standard for success. Managers who are disconnected from their products will necessarily care more about their own careers than the companies they are supposedly leading, too. Hell, theyre going to flip jobs, anyway. Its become a generic position.
Branding also plays into managers notions of fame. Like everyone else, they experience the world through mass media, so they want the world to experience them through mass media. It boils down to a cult of celebrity. And that celebrity – more than competency in a particular industry – leads to big salaries in this upside-down business universe.
This gets to the heart of something that has long troubled me about the notion of being a branding or marketing consultant – it’s all too easy to be another diletante*, purporting to have communication skills that are applicable to all sorts of businesses, whilst not really understanding any business well enough to know what one’s talking about.
What Rushkoff argues will become even more significant as Web 2.0 applications gain ground. It’s why we’re seeing the debates about the future of Venture Capitalism when funding becomes less signficant a challenge for start ups, and passion and enthusiasm and the ability to sustain the idea become more important. It’s also a big part of why big agencies are right to be panicking these days.
(This perspective may also change how we consider the kerfuffle over A listers vs the Long Tail. Those who seem over-distressed about the power of the As are probably putting too much emphasis on the ego and not enough on the expertise; worrying about charisma instead of conversation, with too much focus on the nodes and not enough on the links.)
James and I have been having interesting conversations with organisations that are getting into the idea of blogging and other ways of collaborating with customers. What they are beginning to realise is that to blog well, you really have to be knowledgeable and passionate about your business. This kind of expertise, whether inside business or among key customers, has long been derided as geeky or fanatical – but now it needs to be valued much more highly (see James’ post on Why Hells Angels Know Best). It may be time for the revenge of the geeks.
* There’s a baby I don’t want to throw out with the bathwater here: let’s not confuse the dilettante, defined here, as an amateur who engages in an activity without serious intentions and who pretends to have knowledge (my emphasis) with the bricoleur defined here as a person who creates things from scratch, is creative and resourceful: a person who collects information and things and then puts them together in a way that they were not originally designed to do